On Second Thought, San Francisco Halts Deadly Robot Cop Army

San Francisco authorities are pausing their decision to deploy explosives-wielding law enforcement bots after the humans complained

Striking a blow for humans in the War Against the Machines, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to suspend plans that would allow a fleet of potentially deadly police robots to hit the city streets. The decision came in the face of pushback from non-silicon-based lifeforms, after the board voted 8-3 last week in favor of allowing the police to use robots armed with explosives, the Associated Press reports.

The three opposing supervisors joined a group of protestors who gathered outside City Hall on Monday, leading chants and holding signs with tinfoil-hat slogans like “No Killer Robots.”

Supervisor Dean Preston fleshed out this sentiment, stating flatly: “The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city. We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people.”

While the initial measure approved the use of explosives-bearing robots—not gun-toting androids—when human lives are at stake, the proposal struck a nerve center of hot-button urban issues. With post-pandemic cities like San Francisco often resembling the Detroit of 1987’s RoboCop, appeals for robotic help with law enforcement quickly inflamed ongoing debates about criminal justice, automation, police brutality and militarization. For years, federal programs have dispensed grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and other military surplus to local law enforcement, whose use has only grown more divisive.

Last week, the San Francisco Police Department denied receiving military robots or planning to arm robots with firearms. Instead, SFPD spokesperson Allison Maxie assured that the police would use explosives-bearing devices only “to contact, incapacitate, or disorient, violent, armed, or dangerous suspects.”

Typically, civilian sentiment curbs widespread adoption of lethal rovers, facial-recognition software, and any of the other fixtures seen in urban dystopias and popping up regularly at trade shows. Experts like Michael White, a criminologist at Arizona State University, says the scarier iterations of these devices are unlikely to find buyers in the public sector.

“It’s hard to say what will happen in the future,” White told the AP. “But I think weaponized robots very well could be the next thing that departments don’t want because communities are saying they don’t want them.”

This reluctance follows police robots’ decidedly spotty record in recent years. True, one robot distinguished itself in 2013 by lifting up a tarp that concealed one of the Boston Marathon suspects and allowing his apprehension. And five years later, Dallas became the first city to use lethal robotic force, in the justifiable killing of a sniper who’d killed five officers and injured nine others. But subsequent interactions between humans and robot enforcers often play like a crime-blotter blooper reel.

Highlights would include a dwelling-wrecking bomb robot in Maine, a rejected robot dog in New York City and the suspiciously Dalek-looking droids a company called Knightscope has supplied police that have variously: run over a toddler in Silicon Valley, rebuffed a good Samaritan in Huntington Park, committed suicide by drowning in D.C., and incited a turf war with unhoused people in San Francisco’s Mission District.

“We live in a time when unthinkable mass violence is becoming more commonplace,” San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said in a statement released the day the Board of Supervisors initially approved the use of killer robots. “We need the option to be able to save lives in the event we have that tragedy in our city.”

But in a year when mere automated cars caused 400 accidents, it should be remembered that granting robots use of deadly force may be attended by even more unfortunate outcomes.

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